How does the energy transition succeed?

Between Climate Crisis and Gas Emergency - How Can Germany Master the Social Challenges of the Energy Transition?

2022-09-02 The lawyer Prof. Dr. Thomas Schomerus has been teaching public law in Lüneburg since 1996, specializing in energy and environmental law. He has been a member of the Aarhus Convention Compliance Committee of the United Nations in Geneva since 2021. Previously, he was a judge at the Lower Saxony Higher Administrative Court in Lüneburg, where he was involved, among other things, in the first ruling on the Site Selection Act for repositories. In addition to his scientific work, practical projects are always important to him. Advancing sustainability is also a very personal concern of his.

Thomas Schomerus ©Leuphana
Thomas Schomerus
Mr. Schomerus, you are dedicating the tenth Leuphana Energy Forum on September 6 to the social challenges in the accelerated energy transition. Why?
Even before the gas crisis and now the electricity crisis, people at the university were asking: How can we make the energy transition fair? The search for answers is now more urgent than ever. The Energy Forum aims to provide a regional platform for discussion of this topical issue and to stimulate exchange between science and society. The co-organizer is the Climate Protection and Energy Agency of Lower Saxony. We want to reach a large audience with our program and invite all interested parties to participate.
The Climate Protection Act aims to achieve greenhouse gas neutrality for Germany by 2045. To achieve this, the Federal Republic must be almost completely supplied with renewable energies. How can this be achieved?
Three well-known strategies for sustainability must be applied to achieve this: The first priority is to reduce energy consumption. This can be achieved by using energy better, i.e. more efficiently. We should also move toward using less energy in principle by limiting ourselves to what is really necessary, the keyword being sufficiency. And thirdly, we must pay attention to the aspect of consistency, which means relying more on other forms of energy and driving forward the conversion from fossil to renewable energies.
How can Germany phase out fossil fuels?
The biggest hurdles are in the areas of heat and transport. Simply replacing all internal combustion vehicles with electric cars will not be the solution. Instead, we need a fundamental system change that relies less on individual transport and more on public transport, bicycles, sharing models etc.
In Germany, more than half of energy consumption is used to heat and cool plants and houses. Almost 85% of the energy used for this comes from fossil sources. Much greater use must be made of renewable energy here in the future. In addition, all buildings must be much better insulated. In addition, excess heat generated in the summer should be stored underground for the winter, for example. We have already done research on this at Leuphana. But we need more support from policymakers here.
The society of the future will be electricity-based. Electricity consumption will increase from around 560 terawatt-hours a year now to up to 750 terawatt-hours by 2030 and is expected to come from renewables, not around 40% as today, but 80%. Considering Germany's simultaneous phase-out of nuclear and coal-fired power, it becomes clear that we will have to import energy for this purpose in the future as well.
These are major challenges. We are already dependent on imports, at least so far on gas from Russia.
It's true that becoming dependent on Russian energy was a big mistake on the part of politicians. The Nordstream 2 project was widely criticized even before it began. Today, we have to assume that we will soon no longer get any gas at all from Russia because of our support for Ukraine, which was attacked by Russian troops. This will lead to a new dynamic in the energy transition, which we should have had long ago.
In the current situation, however, there are also conflicting goals with climate protection: because of the gas emergency, lignite-fired power plants are now to continue operating, the dirtiest way of generating energy.
Even the efforts of members of the German government to arrange additional energy supplies with Canada, Qatar, Sweden and Norway can only help for a transitional period. There is a real solution to the problem only with a phase-out of fossil fuels.
In the gas crisis, there are also calls for nuclear energy. Can the nuclear phase-out be cancelled so easily?
In principle: yes. The legislature passed the phase-out in 2000 and accelerated it in 2011. So he can also say: we're getting back on board. But I see legal difficulties. The roadmap calls for the last three power plants to be shut down by the end of the year. The operators have been prepared for this for over 10 years - and are not necessarily prepared to change course. This would only be possible by consensus, because a commitment would curtail their rights and risk a lawsuit before the Federal Constitutional Court. And there must be no safety deficiencies under any circumstances. The power plants have not been maintained in such a way that they would still be operational for a long time. To achieve this would require considerable investment.
I have been involved with nuclear power for almost 50 years. For me, one thing is certain: in the long run, we should not use nuclear power, also because of the still unsolved problem of final storage.
Fridays for Future is calling for an energy turnaround in this country as early as 2035. How would that be feasible?
We could make relatively rapid progress here through the use of new solar systems. At present, however, we have too few skilled workers to realize this expansion. In this context, we should perhaps also think about how to get more young people to enter skilled trades, which we urgently need to achieve sustainability goals.
The federal cabinet is currently developing new legislative packages for the expansion of wind power. What can we expect from this?
A lot could be done by the legislator in this area. For example, we need to speed up the planning and approval processes for wind farms. Currently, it takes up to eight years for a plant to go from concept to operation. If we were to start planning today, a new plant would not be able to go into operation until 2030.
However, the expansion of wind power also comes up against spatial limits, because Germany is a densely populated country. But we need more areas for wind and solar farms. Compromises will therefore be necessary - sometimes at the expense of nature conservation and species protection.
A successful energy transition needs not only good laws, but also acceptance from the population. What role can citizen energy play?
We are working very intensively on the topic of financial citizen participation in renewable energies at the university, because projects cannot be realized without local acceptance. We will present the results of our current research project Benefits for discussion at the Energy Forum.
One thing is clear: the local population not only wants to be informed transparently, but also to benefit monetarily. The wind turbines in the neighborhood can be very disturbing, flashing constantly and impairing the view. We have found that the attitude of those affected changes when they can personally benefit financially from the turbines. For me, citizen energy cooperatives are a model for the future.  
Mr. Schomerus, how does climate law work?
The law is a multi-level system: Internationally, the Paris Climate Agreement and the 1.5° or 2° limit hover over everything. The European Union is guided by this and makes binding specifications, for example in the context of the Green New Deal, which member states such as Germany must implement. The German government usually proposes the laws, which are then passed by the Bundesrat and the Bundestag. For the time being, the measures are only on paper; they must also be implemented at the federal, state and local levels. In the end, however, private individuals have to invest. However, climate protection, for example thanks to the energy turnaround, creates great opportunities - as long as it succeeds fairly.